Soju Satori

Photo by Matt OttoAbout once a year, I replace my usual round of meds with an alcohol du jour. One year, it was Young's Double Chocolate Stout, the closest thing to a Godiva-and-Guinness milkshake I've ever had. Another, it was Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, still one of my faves. All I've got to say is if Yahweh doesn't have any Captain Morgan on tap up in the sweet by and by, I may have to trade places with Saddam Hussein in the hot place.

My head-shrinker finds all this very amusing. The guy looks like a cross between George Zimmer of the Men's Wearhouse and The Gong Show's Chuck Barris. Of course, he says no with a bemused air, and then he gives me the lecture about how Zoloft and Jim Beam don't mix. (Zoloft and Johnny Walker, on the other hand . . .) But the chiding is kept to a minimum. He knows I don't drink nearly as much as I did in my New York days.

Back then, I used to black out at least once a week—twice if there was a holiday. I was downing massive amounts of Jack Daniels at the time. I poured the stuff over my morning pancakes. A fifth of J.D. facilitates time travel, I discovered: one moment, you're in a bar making goo-goo eyes at a blonde who looks like Jodie Foster during her Yale years; the next, you're in your bathtub fully clothed with the water running. Amazing, that brown fluid is, guv'nor.

I tell you this because of my newly rediscovered love of soju. For those of you who don't know, soju is a clear Korean firewater nowadays distilled from sweet potatoes, betwixt sake and vodka in potency. I used to swill it all the time while dating Mannie, a gal from Hong Kong who lived in Queens.

Mannie introduced me to Korean barbecue, which she got a Jones for every Friday. When the weekend rolled around, we'd hit the restaurants in K-town. There, at Korean barbecue joints, the waitresses bring you stacks of marinated beef, pork or chicken, and you cook 'em up on a gas grill built into your table.

A typical spread comes with panchan, an array of little side dishes including rice, kimchee, scallions, spinach, red-leaf lettuce and so on. You grill your meat, then dunk it into a saucer of peppery sauce. Place the meat on a piece of lettuce; add kimchee, rice and whatever else you want; roll it up; and pop it in your porthole. After one or two of these, you knock back some shots of soju, which usually comes in 12-ounce bottles. This way, you can consume vast quantities without getting completely wasted, much less blacking out.

A few weeks back, I fell asleep after watching Shiri, the South Korean spy thriller with the bewitchingly beautiful Yun-Jin Kim, and I awoke with a hankering for soju and barbecue. It so happened I knew that one of the best Korean establishments in LA, Soot Bull Jeep, had opened a gleaming new location in Diamond Bar, so I sallied forth, seeking to slake my soju fixation.

What makes Soot Bull Jeep unique is its use of natural charcoal instead of gas alone—the norm in many Korean places. Next to the clean, functional booths are jumbo-sized buckets of black chunks. Your table lady scoops up a good mass of these, fills your grill, fires up the gas flame and covers it with a pockmarked mask of iron. (The smoke is sucked away by a huge steel chimney above your table.) Soon, you're dodging sparks and watching your meat sputter while quaffing the soju of the house, Saan Soju, made with green tea. Smashing stuff, that.

Instead of achieving soju satori, my lust for the liquor has ballooned like my belly! Well, at least I'm fat and happy. And soju, I keep telling my psychiatrist, doesn't need any prescription.

Soot Bull Jeep Natural Charcoal B.B.Q. House, located at 20627 Golden Springs Dr., Diamond Bar, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (909) 594-7755. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $65, including one bottle of soju. All major credit cards accepted.


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